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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: Mohamed Saleh has won the big prizes for his club, leading Liverpool to the UEFA Champions League in 2019 and the English Premier League a year later. Add the Club World Cup and a few other trophies and personal awards and the list is impressive.
There is something missing however, as everyone in Egypt knows, and that is the Africa Cup of Nations. If he can fill that gap in the tournament that kicks off in Ivory Coast on Saturday, then the trophy haul would be as good as complete.
He has been continental runner-up twice. In 2017, Salah scored in the semi-final win over Burkina Faso. In the final, he set up the opener for Mohamed Elneny to put the Pharaohs ahead against Cameroon in Gabon only for Nicolas Nkoulou to equalize on the hour and Vincent Aboubaker to grab a late winner.
If that was heartbreaking, then the 2021 final was worse.
Egypt were looking very hard to beat ahead of the final against Senegal but after two hours of football finished goalless it went to a penalty shootout. Salah was down to take the fifth and final kick but never got a chance as two team-mates missed theirs and it was all over.
In between those two was a 2019 tournament that took place at home, and it was expected that Egypt would go on and win title No. 8 and a first since 2010.
They breezed through the group, winning all three without conceding a goal, which earned a second-round showdown with South Africa. There were 75,000 packed into Cairo’s International Stadium, but with five minutes to go they were silenced as Thembinkosi Lorch scored what turned out to be the only goal of a very frustrating game.
Despite being the most successful team in the competition’s history, Egypt are not the favorites going into the new tournament, but they do have Salah, one of the best players in the world, which means anything could happen.
For Liverpool this season, his form has been outstanding – as it almost always is – and he arrives in Ivory Coast as the joint top scorer in the English Premier League with 14 goals along with Manchester City’s Erling Haaland.
The 31-year-old continues to operate at the very top level of the world game. There is a whole host of talent about to take the pitch in Africa but there is no name bigger and more revered than that of Salah.
Group B starts with a winnable clash against Mozambique and then comes the glamor game with Ghana before it all finishes against Cape Verde. It should not present too many problems. Then the real fun begins.
As things stand, the bookmakers have the hosts Ivory Coast, Senegal, Morocco, and Algeria as the favorites ahead of Egypt. If Salah fires, and he should have more attacking freedom this time than in the last tournament which had Carlos Queiroz in charge, then he could lead them all the way to the title.
That would not just complete his personal medal collection – realistically, Egypt are not winning the World Cup anytime soon – but perhaps more besides.
He has been named as the African Footballer of the Year on two occasions, in 2017 and 2018, but has never won the Ballon d’Or. Salah has been in the conversation many times, finishing fifth twice in the last five years as well as sixth, seventh, and 11th. The lowest position was at the end of 2023, but he was not downhearted.
Saleh told Egyptian television: “At the end of the day it’s people’s opinions, but in my mind, I’m the best player in the world, that’s what I say to myself.
“I can’t say that I don’t want to win the Ballon d’Or or FIFA’s The Best, of course, I want to win either of them. But if I don’t win either of them, there is no problem. Everything I want, I usually get. I know that I will win either of them later, I’m not worried,” the forward said.
AFCON success along with a Europa League win for Liverpool and getting into the Champions League later in the year may well be enough. The major problem is that he is clearly the best player in what is not a vintage Egyptian side.
Others have more strength in depth, including Arab rivals.
Morocco will be looking to carry on from their World Cup success. At the end of 2022, the Atlas Lions thrilled millions of viewers by reaching the semi-final of the World Cup, beating Belgium, Spain, and Portugal along the way.
Algeria won in 2019 and have what it takes to go far once more, with Tunisia always a tough opponent.
Many neutrals and fans of Liverpool will be cheering on the Egyptian king and perhaps even club boss Jurgen Klopp, desperate to get his star player back to Anfield, would not begrudge a long stay if it means the title.
It is the one prize that has proved to be elusive, but it is again within reach for Africa’s biggest star.
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